Frank H. Chen is not a typical start-up entrepreneur. Where most of them want to go fast, Frank goes slow. Where boasting about one’s dreams and ambitions is the standard attitude, Frank prefers being humble. And where many founders are working such long hours that they find themselves losing friends and family, Frank makes sure he takes care of his relatives in the best possible way. Indeed, even if this means that his dream has to wait.
Frank H. Chen’s start-up story is not often heard and hardly ever shared – although he’s sure to be one of many. Still, 99 out of 100 start-up experiences that are presented on stage are about hardships, putting aside everything you love, periods of depression and loss of faith, dividing the shares, fights between founders, and yes, about the ultimate success.
In a way, it’s how Frank started as well. He quit his steady job at DSM, “pushed by the fear that I would no longer do what I love to do there – innovation”. It offered him the mental space to work on his ideas about a recyclable packaging solution. Quinlyte, the start-up that was built upon that idea, would prove that plastics could be used and reused as many times as you would want, without losing any of their value.
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“Yes, that’s what I thought”, Frank says with a sigh. “But during a customer visit, I was challenged that a multilayer film, regardless of what it is, will be rejected by recyclers. That was an embarrassing moment. Because I suddenly noticed how naïve I was: A guy who is proud of his recyclable solution has never talked to a recycler before!”
The “embarrassing moment” put him back on earth. “Everyone says the solution can be there, but how on earth could someone achieve this? We know what the value of the original plastic is. Even if I would succeed in making new plastics in my lab, this wouldn’t prove anything. How can you ever reach something similar if you have all the extra costs of shipping the waste, decomposing the material, recomposing it, and, again, transportation? It just can’t be done, whatever people tell you.”
“I suddenly noticed how naïve I was: A guy who is proud of his recyclable solution has never talked to a recycler before!”Frank H. Chen
It took him some time to recover from the insights he gained, but now Frank has fully focused again. “Being aware that recycled plastics will never become more than greenwashing, I changed my direction. I went from wanting to create a product, to creating a workable, profitable, and sustainable solution, together with other parties. As small, and regional, as this needs to be…” Another observation strengthened Frank in his course. “The success of many companies is based on being obscure around the production process or the ingredients that are being used. I don’t want to be like that. In plastics, this is obvious as well: the more the consumer knows about the product and the way it is affecting the earth, the more concerns there will be. And the more I would feel uncomfortable. You know, the deeper I got into the matter, the more humble I became.”
Start-ups always seem to be in a hurry to meet the next goals. Quinlyte isn’t. “If I could make a choice three years ago, I would have definitely chosen to be fast”, Frank admits. “And I would probably have sacrificed my family time for work as I always did at DSM. I was almost forced to accept that it has to be slow. But gradually I learned to adapt to it, explore and enjoy the great value of it. Compared with three years ago, I became less ambitious but also less anxious about future success.”
Still, he already made big steps with the technology he has been developing in recent years. He managed to produce a recipe for multilayered film, out of which he is able to create a new plastic alloy, which can be used as a fiber, a new multi-layer film, or for 3D printing. An achievement he can be really proud of, but Frank immediately adds that “what’s just as important is that the whole cycle should be integrated, locally. Yes, I benefited from globalization, but here I am, I believe in local product cycles.”
So next to the material innovation (“I think the technology is at 80% now”), Frank is working on logistics as well. “Shipping unprocessed wastes at long distance is environmentally unfriendly, costly and could destroy the value of wastes due to cross-contamination. Instead of only focus on solutions at the destination, I think part of the solution should be at the source. One of the ideas I am exploring now is developing a recycling mini-unit that’s so small it will fit in a truck. With it, plastic parts that have finished their life cycle can be collected, controlled and pre-processed locally before shipping to a centralized factory where the focus should be reworking the pre-processed flakes into higher value-added materials”. Re-designing logistics is just as important as developing new technologies, Frank says.
“Maybe I’m just too uncomfortable to approach someone with a story that’s 60% fact and 40% blabla.”Frank H. Chen
To achieve this, Frank will take his time. And work on his dream solo, for now. “I’m not ready for a VC. Maybe I’m just too uncomfortable to approach someone with a story that’s 60% fact and 40% blabla. Someday, I will be ready, but for now, I remain as low profile as possible. Working like this will also reduce the risk for me and the partners that are working with me. Fortunately, developing this alone doesn’t mean that I don’t get help from others. Think of DSM and SABIC, but also ZUYD University and CHILL, all located at Brightlands Chemelot Campus. They enable me to perform, even without investors.”
Although the course has changed, Frank H. Chen has no doubts that he will be able to turn his ambitions into a usable solution. And for someone who keeps telling that he is “not a born entrepreneur”, he even has one of those typical start-up goals: “At the end of next year, I want to have grown from zero to one.” And in five years’ time, the truly circular solution will be ready for the market, may it be with or without the support of a VC. In the meantime, Frank aims at bringing money to his family with the plastic alloy products that Quinlyte is already able to produce. “This way, I can grow and explore at the same time.”
Being slow doesn’t mean being lazy, Frank concludes. “It may take more time for me than for others. I build credibility one step at a time, but be sure that I will arrive where I want to be.”
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